Wednesday, February 17, 2010
Wench by Dolen Perkins-Valdez
I told my mom to read The Known World, though I hadn’t read it. My mom had been bugging me to read it and I did. Somewhere in the middle of reading it, I read Tayari’s post about Wench and I knew that it was the next book for my mom and me.
Once again, my mom read it first and loved it. Now I’ve read it, too—and already leant it out to a friend.
Wench is based on a real resort in 1850s Xenia, Ohio where slave masters would take their slave mistresses on vacation. The three-part book focuses on Lizzie, one of four women who come together each summer to share stories and struggles. This is a serious novel but also a pleasurable one—it won’t break your heart and pull out your guts the way some other books about slavery do. Instead, it pulls you in to the incredible friendship among women, the way women need to learn to be true to each other and not depend on men.
What Perkins-Valdez does so amazingly is to offer up the story of all the confusing emotions of a young slave, Lizzie, who becomes her master’s mistress as a teen-ager. What is it she feels for him? Can you call it love when your lover owns you? When, on the last day of your “vacation” he ties you to the porch and leaves you a bowl of water like you’re a dog? Of course, it’s not anything we would want to call love, but it makes you think hard—very hard—about human attachments and marriage. Lizzie’s situation is an extreme version of what marriage was for many women for centuries: total economic dependence, lack of property (of course, a slave was property), utter lack of legal stature, utter lack of rights over one’s own body or to one’s children. If that is your situation and you’re still a human, mightn’t you soften a bit? Find some loyalty or affection for an owner who is attached to you? Find some ways to love and mother your children, to figure out—desperately, anxiously—ways to get your lover-owner to promise to free them?
I’m not surprised that this book is getting a lot of buzz (it's in its fourth printing already, last I heard!): it’s a wonderful story about the power of women, of a mother’s love, of friendship. You can read more about it here and here. And, if you're in New York, you can hear her read--and support Girls Write Now while you're at it--on February 26th.